There are many upsetting things about the Christmas and New Year’s season—increased credit-card debt, unresolved decades-long family pain, the spiritual vacuum at the core of our culture, trying to get into the spirit of things when you secretly wish that you knew Dr. Kevorkian’s home phone number—but exposure to bad breath is definitely high on the list.
I recently went to eight Christmas parties in seven days and I was assaulted with so much bad breath that I feel I’ve gone through four years’ worth of dental school and I’m ready to hang a shingle. I imagine that must be one of the first things dentists have to be trained for and screened for—ability to withstand halitosis. There’s probably some kind of machine they put young dentists in front of which blows bad-breath fragrances into their faces until they’re immune, kind of like what they did to that fellow in Clockwork Orange, but in reverse.
You know, we always make fun of dentists, but have we ever put ourselves in their green smocks and crepe shoes? Just think of what they go through on a daily basis! Many of the medical professions are rough this way, though; proctologists are sort of the spiritual doppelgangers of dentists, but their lot may actually be more difficult. Outside of the medical profession, prostitutes also have it rough, but most of them smartly employ a no-kissing policy. So I’ve been told.
Anyway, I was so sickened by this one fellow’s pâté-breath at a Christmas party, I had to leave early. Later that night—around 3 a.m. —I bolted upright in my bed at the memory of it and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I replayed the thing, like a barroom fight. A barroom fight that I had lost. The fellow had insisted on crowding me—we were in the kitchen of our mutual friend’s home and he had me up against the sink, which was pressing on my sciatic nerve, further paralyzing me. I should mention that this pâté-fiend had suffered some kind of injury to his larynx as a child and this forces him to whisper all the time, and at this party, which was very loud with the shriekings of overweight children and the gargling noises of alcoholics’ tipping beers down their throats, he had to get right on top of me to be heard. He was like a boxer getting another boxer against the ropes, but instead of jabs and uppercuts he was scorching my face with such a fierce aroma of partially digested pâté and still-being-chewed pâté that I was sorely tempted to behave in an antisocial manner and say:
“Listen, you’re completely unaware of this, lost in the cloud cover of your own id, but you’re giving me a second-degree burn with this pâté-breath of yours and I used to sort of like you, but I now feel such repulsion and dislike toward your person that I will snub you for the rest of eternity.”
But I didn’t say any such thing. I just took a beating and applied the St. Francis prayer: Better to understand than to be understood, better to forgive than be forgiven.
What made the moment a little postmodern, despite my use of an old prayer, was that not only was the fellow in question vaporizing me with pâté, he was speaking to me about pâté, making my living hell a sort of double hell, like two-dimensional chess.
“What is pâté?” he had asked, as he shoved a loaded cracker like a cannonball into his mouth.
“Liver,” I squeaked.
“Really? I don’t like liver, but this stuff is great,” he said, firing the cannonball.
“Yes, it’s very popular,” I aspirated.
“Is it chicken liver?”
“Most likely, though sometimes it’s duck liver,” I gasped.
Then I thought of a pretty duck floating around in some toxic pond and how the liver filters poison and that I was now breathing in pureed crushed poison that some pretty duck had once absorbed before being slaughtered.
“Excuse me,” I then said to him, the vision of this duck floating through my mind, “but I have to go…”
That, I have to say, was probably the zenith of the bad breath I encountered during my holiday party sojourn. After that it was mostly just a lot of bad wine-breath with an occasional kind of universal sour-cheese smell emanating from certain people. One person did give me a strong dose of garlic-breath and I took delusional solace in the well-documented fact that garlic is good for the immune system and hoped that this also applied to breathing in secondhand garlic fumes.
Naturally, I was worried about my own breath at all these parties and was trying to chew a lot of mints and I was rigorously avoiding hors d’oeuvres like a woman on a diet. But at one party, I noticed a fellow, as I spoke to him, pulling his neck back, spinal notch after spinal notch, like a heron. I was going on about the Bush administration’s attempt to quell any kind of protest and I was mostly citing John Ashcroft’s ludicrous case against Greenpeace, but I could hardly make my point as I was secretly thinking that I was dousing the fellow with halitosis and that he was secretly judging me to be a disgusting person.
Oh, we’re all so alone!
At another party a rather slobbish fellow spit food directly into my mouth and when I got home I took seven vitamin Cs, and at another party the ceilings were very high and I didn’t encounter any bad breath. As this miracle was unfolding, I wondered if the high ceilings had something to do with it, or was bad-breath random, like all other components of the universe? I mean what are the chances of having fifteen meaningless conversations at a Christmas party and not encountering one case of halitosis? But then again, this makes perfect beautiful sense—after all, miracles are what this season is all about.